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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, August 18, 2014

Zawahiri Falls Off The Map, Is Rebuked By Top Al Nusra Figure

UPDATED: 11:17 a.m., see note below 

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has stopped responding to messages from the terror network's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, according to an extraordinary open letter published online yesterday by a top Nusra figure, Abu Maria al Qahtani.

According to Qahtani, Zawahiri went silent around the time that AQ splinter group, the Islamic State, declared a "caliphate" and demanded fealty from all other jihadi groups around the world. In a reproachful tone, Qahtani asked whether Zawahiri's intermediaries were delivering the messages, or whether Zawahiri knew about this grave emergency and just didn't care to help.

Qahtani writes, in an open letter addressed to Zawahiri, that al Nusra has been sending urgent messages to Zawahiri for two months, requesting that he speak out against the Islamic State's caliphate declaration, referring to IS as Kharijites (a derogatory reference to an early schism in Islamic history). Despite the letter's tone, Qahtani continues to refer to Zawahiri with respect, as an authority figure.

In the letter, al Qahtani says he is embarrassed to be making this public appeal, but he cannot be certain whether Zawahiri is aware of the situation and just doesn't want to help, or whether Nusra's messages to Zawahiri are being delivered by the designated intermediaries, whom Qahtani implies may not be trustworthy.

Last year, Ibrahim al Afghani, a figure with longstanding ties to al Qaeda and Zawahiri, published an similarly controversial open letter to Zawahiri in which he pleaded for the al Qaeda leader to intervene in a dispute within al Shabab, al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia. Afghani was killed soon thereafter by al Shabab's leadership, as was Omar Hammami, an American Shabab recruit who issued similar public pleas for al Qaeda intervention.

Al Qaeda made no response to either man while they were alive, but a leaked video this year from Adam Gadahn, an American al Qaeda member believed to be close to Zawahiri, condemned the killing of both men as Islamically unacceptable.

All of this together casts serious doubt on whether al Qaeda is in steady communication with any of its affiliates. Although individual instances of contact have certainly occurred, Zawahiri's response times have not been adequate to address the growing number of crises faced by AQ and its affiliates on the global stage. (I noted signs of this situation developing in a February article for Foreign Policy.)

The letter from Qahtani is an order of magnitude more significant than the earlier rebukes aimed at Zawahiri's silence, since those came from dissenters who were defying al Shabab's AQ-sanctioned leader, Ahmed Godane.

In contrast, Qahtani has been part of the leadership of one of al Qaeda's most important affiliates, currently under tremendous pressure from Islamic State advances in Syria, increasing disenchantment with Nusra among global jihadists community, and this weekend's arrest of Shafi al Ajmi, one of the organization's top fundraisers, in Kuwait. His letter is both a criticism of Zawahiri and a warning that the al Qaeda leader is in danger of losing control of one of its top two affiliates.

UPDATE: However, after several conversations about this post, it's important to note that Qahtani's status with al Nusra has changed recently, with more than one person describing his status as "rogue," although the consensus is that this is not a clean or total break. I initially omitted mention of this since the circumstances of Qahtani's problems with Nusra leadership are decidedly unclear, but it's an important point that I should have included in the first version of the story. I omitted it mainly because rumors about Qahtani's status have been a weekly occurrence for some time.

In some ways, this undercuts the significance of the rebuke, making it deniable for Jabhat al Nusra's emir, Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani. However Qahtani still represents a significant constituency in al Nusra, and it's possible that deniability is the reason why this letter was attributed to him.

Either way, it's indicative of problems, but slightly different ones. If Qahtani made this move without sanction from Jowlani, it may point to a potential splintering of al Nusra, which has been the subject of some speculation recently. If the letter's release was sanctioned, it allows al Nusra to make a strong expression of discontent with al Qaeda Central's leadership, while providing a face-saving opportunity to later deny or downplay the tone of the letter. END UPDATE

It's also worth noting that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the other half of the top two, has issued two statements in recent days which carefully hedge around the issue of the Islamic State, opting not to openly condemn its declaration of the caliphate and instead praising its military advances and supporting its engagement in battle with U.S. forces in carefully parsed terms. This could reflect a lack of direction from Zawahiri, but it may also be a pragmatic effort to walk a middle line, out of fear that AQAP could splinter if it openly condemns IS.

Humera Khan contributed to this article, but the views expressed are mine.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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